by KC Carlson
Johanna outed me last week, over at Comics Worth Reading, so I better fess up.
Beginning in October, I will be teaching a six-week History of American Comic Books class for the Madison Area Technical College (MATC) here in Madison, Wisconsin. I was put in contact with the school via area artist Jeff Butler. He’s probably best known for drawing The Badger with writer Mike Baron from Capital Comics/First Comics, and he has been involved with others in developing a pretty solid little group of comic book and animation classes. He’s been teaching several different comics drawing classes for MATC over the past several years.
After relocating back to Madison last year, and bumping into Jeff at Free Comic Book Day this Spring at Westfield, I approached him, wondering if MATC needed anyone to teach comics history or possibly writing classes. Within a couple of weeks, I was in contact with the folks at MATC, and I was approved to start in the Fall. We’re trying this one history class to see what the response will be. If it’s successful, we’ll start discussions about future classes on writing for comics and graphic novels and possibly more focused history classes, concentrating on specific eras or genres. But first, let’s get through this one.
This particular class will be 12 hours in length, consisting of six weekly two-hour sessions. The first class begins October 16, 2013, and ends November 20. At this point, I honestly don’t know how much history we’re going to be able to cover. There’s at least 75 years of comic book history (over a hundred years, if we include the subject matter of the first comic books — reprinted newspaper comic strips). I plan to survey the class in the first session about what’s important to them, but I’m also adamant about including genres beyond superheroes. (They dominate comic book history but do not always define it.) This is the first time I’ve done this, in this format, and I’m sure that we’ll be tweaking as we go along.
BUT WHAT DO WE READ?
Already, a few people have been asking me about textbooks. There are a lot of wonderful books out there about comic books and their magical and frustrating history. Students attending the class will receive a detailed (and annotated) Recommended Reading List of dozens and dozens of important books about comic books, largely compiled from our combined libraries. (My wife Johanna has a Masters in Popular Culture, concentrating on comic book fandom. She saved all her texts, while I have been buying, collecting, and reading comic book histories since the late 1960s.)
What we don’t have is a single book that can act as an overall textbook for the class. I want something that meets these requirements:
* Must be an overview of comic book history from (at least) the 1930s to today.
* Must cover all (or most) of the various comic book genres (horror, western, crime, humor, romance, etc.) — not JUST superheroes.
* Must cover all (or most) of the major comic book publishers, all of whom have their own unique histories.
* Must cover various formats, not just comic books, but also graphic novels and webcomics. (I’d say manga and bandes dessinées, but I already restricted the class to American comics.)
* And must still be IN PRINT, or otherwise available.
I know that such a book would necessarily be unable to cover all these topics in detail, but there needs to be something that provides an overview of all these areas. There are probably close to a hundred different books that would fulfill part of these requirements: histories about eras, or characters, or creators, or publishers. (Those last are usually self-published and more “gift” oriented than historically detailed. Plus, they tend to whitewash the content about controversies.) We’ve got dozens of great, extremely detailed genre studies. However, most are self-published, have limited distribution, and are usually quite expensive. Some of the best books about comic book history are long out of print, and possibly not easily obtainable in libraries.
I’m not looking to bankrupt students by having them buy a lot of different books, just to concentrate on a fraction of their overall contents. I’m currently working with MATC for solutions to this concern, and I hope to have answers on this relatively soon. (Have a suggestion? Please get in touch!)
I’m secretly hoping that we’ll have great interest in this first class, enough that in the future, I would be able to have more tightly-defined classes based on specific genres (horror, crime, superheroes, newspaper strips, etc.) or eras (Golden Age, Silver Age, etc.) or even publisher-based. With focused classes, it would be much easier to point to specific books.
In the meantime, please check out these small overviews of general interest comic book history books that I wrote previously for Westfield.
MY HISTORY IN TEACHING COMICS
This is not the first time I’ve taught comics. Somewhere, there are about 12 people who took a multi-week minicourse on the History of Comic Books at the University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire in the late 70s. They liked it so much that we all stuck together afterwards and produced our own comics fanzine, Comics Chronicles. (It helped that one of the group worked for a copy shop.) I think we produced something like 6 or 8 pretty good issues before I moved away to start my comics career at Capital City Distribution, and eventually here at Westfield, where I’m able to occasionally share some comic book history with you.
Nowadays, Johanna frequently encourages me to contribute more history pieces at Comics Worth Reading. And folks like Westfield’s Roger Ash and Talking With Tim’s Tim O’Shea can attest that I can’t shut up once I’m talking about comic book history. Both — and many others — have lost lifetimes of sleep trying to keep up with me after-hours at conventions. In fact, it seems that Tim has been skipping conventions simply to rest up — or maybe to avoid me completely! (Actually, he’s been very busy in his real-life job.)
I have read and accumulated comic book history in my brain for over 40 years. It’s getting pretty crowded in there. Time to give some of that back. Or to pass it on.
I’m going back to school! Hope I have at least as much fun as Rodney did. (Not really…) If you’re in the area, hope to see you in class!
KC CARLSON: What rhymes with comics?… Ba-Bomics?
Also… going to have to love apples a lot.